The Return of the Living Dead Collector's Edition Blu-ray Review
Written by ZigZag
Blu-ray released by Scream Factory
Written and directed by Dan O’Bannon
1985, 91 minutes, Rated R
Blu-ray released on July 19th, 2016
Clu Gulager as Burt
James Karen as Frank
Thom Mathews as Freddy
Beverly Randolph as Tina
Don Calfa as Ernie
Miguel Nunez as Spider
Linnea Quigley as Trash
Jewel Shepard as Casey
John Philbin as Chuck
It’s the Fourth of July and Tina and her friends are looking to party, but decide to hang out in a local cemetery and wait for her boyfriend Freddy to get off work and join the fun. Freddy is just starting out at the Uneeda Medical Supply Company, where his supervisor Frank gives a tour of the facility. He shares stories about some of the more interesting items in the basement, specifically a collection of industrial barrels containing the remains of “zombies” that supposedly once walked the earth. When one of these tanks ruptures, a toxic gas is released into the air that sickens both employees. They decide the best action is to cover up the mess, but are unaware that this results in a far greater catastrophe, as the infectious gas spreads to the nearby cemetery. Soon an army of the dead are unleashed upon the unsuspecting teens and the surrounding grounds and nothing can stop these ghouls from eating people’s delicious brains!
I don’t know much about zombies except what I’ve seen in the movies or read in books. It appears that there are two basic schools of thinking when it comes to zombie behavior: fast or slow. In the first half of the twentieth century, this cinematic creature was used as a source of slave labor or as a tool the villain employed to further his cause. In films like I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and Isle of the Dead (1945), one could make the argument that the walking dead were manipulated victims. This all changed when director George A. Romero took the non-threatening creature into aggressive new territory with Night of the Living Dead (1968) and turned the ghoul into a cannibalistic source for social commentary. He expanded these concepts with Dawn of the Dead (1978), a sequel that ratcheted up the graphic violence and over-the-top energy in order to make an even more personal message ring loud and clear. The zombie became the go-to source of gore as countless imitators around the world filled movie theaters in the wake of Romero’s success with countless knockoffs, but they lacked the allegorical dynamic posed by the master storyteller. One thing all of these films shared in common was that the creatures were slowly shuffling beings that could easily be outrun or overpowered unless they were gathered en masse. Twenty-first century zombies are a much faster breed that can run and climb and occasionally work together in a hive mentality as evidenced in films like Resident Evil (2002), Dawn of the Dead (2004) and World War Z (2013).
Self-righteous Romero devotees lost their damn minds at the idea of a fast-moving zombie, and made sure everyone knew it as they unleashed their disdain across social media. Apparently all but the dullest dimwit knows this basic truth: Zombies. Don’t. Run. The walking dead live up to their moniker by walking. What many of these cinematic blowhards managed to overlook, however, is the much loved cult classic The Return of the Living Dead (1985) in which zombies not only run, they can talk! These intelligent creatures operate police radios, hide in bushes to ambush victims and even use tools to breach barricades. Writer/ director Dan O’Bannon (The Resurrected) upended many familiar genre tropes with his comedy-horror hybrid that brought the subgenre to a new level of fun by injecting laughs and creativity into the mix. As mentioned above, zombies were once a lumbering tool for villains and it wasn’t until Romero came up with the idea to make them eat people that they became truly menacing. O’Bannon expands upon this idea by having their diet focus specifically on the human brain and even provides a reason why. The film is far more colorful than what preceded it and includes an explosive soundtrack filled with a variety of punk rock hits of the 1980s. All of these elements fly in the face of convention, but O’Bannon succeeds because of his determination to entertain audiences.
The film benefits from an amazing ensemble cast including Clu Gulager (From a Whisper to a Scream), James Karen (Invaders from Mars), Don Calfa (10), Thom Mathews (Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives) and Linnea Quigley (Night of the Demons). O’Bannon successfully orchestrates moments of grand chaos and humor in both the medical facility and graveyard locations before uniting the characters under one roof. At this point the tone switches to one of a classic siege picture as everyone fights together to stay alive. The black comedy elements grow even darker as we race to an apocalyptic finale that is immensely satisfying and hysterically over-the-top. Return of the Living Dead was moderately successful upon release, but some critics credited Romero as the director since Day of the Dead had opened in theaters a few weeks prior. O’Bannon’s film persevered and has gone on to spawn a franchise including four sequels to date. As the Halloween season draws near, do yourself a favor and pick up this modern horror classic and crank your speakers loud enough to wake the dead!
Video and Audio:
Scream Factory continues to impress with their all-new 2K scans and once again I must use the phrase this is the best this film has ever looked. Presented in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, there is a lot more detail than in any earlier release and the entire picture looks sharper. Contrast levels are fantastic, especially in the warehouse basement and graveyard sequences. Colors and black levels are also strong and flesh tones (living and undead) appear natural throughout.
There are three audio options including both the DTS-HD MA 5.1 and 2.0 tracks from the previous MGM Blu-ray and, new to this release, the original DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono theatrical audio. The 5.1 mix is very satisfying with its inclusion of rear channel activity, but the surprise winner here is the original mono track. Longtime fans are aware of the numerous audio changes that have plagued home video versions of this film, including sound effects and dialogue as well as the replacement of several songs from the soundtrack due to copyright issues. For the first time, almost all of the original audio is available with the exception of one song (from The Damned) that could not be cleared for this release. It is interesting to switch between mixes to hear where different songs once appeared and also audio cues like the original voice of the Tar Man.
Optional English subtitles are included for anyone in need.
When Scream Factory asks fans to double or triple dip on a catalog title, they try to take the sting off the act of punishing our wallets by loading their Blu-ray releases with every possible special feature. This new Collector’s Edition offers an absolutely ridiculous amount of joy for your consideration including four audio commentaries, two still galleries, five theatrical trailers, eleven television spots, and a featurette – and that’s just what’s on the first disc!
Actors Thom Mathews and John Philbin are joined by make-up artist Tony Gardner for an all-new commentary that is both informative and entertaining. Moderator Sean Clark keeps things on target and encourages the participants to share memories of the production both good and bad, and the results are pretty awesome.
A second newly-recorded commentary features uber-fans Chris Griffiths and Gary Smart, the latter of which co-authored The Complete History of The Return of the Living Dead. While their hearts are in the right place, this track is really scattered and would have benefitted from a moderator to keep the guys on topic. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of good stuff here, but they easily get distracted.
Returning from the previous Blu-ray special edition are a pair of commentaries with members of the cast and crew. The first features Dan O’Bannon and production designer William Stout, offering a wide range of technical information that includes the immense efforts of creating the look of the picture and the difficulty in making things run smoothly.
The final audio commentary includes Stout with actors Don Calfa, Linnea Quigley, Beverly Randolph, Brian Peck and Allan Trautman. Originally appearing on the 25th anniversary edition, this track has a lot of fun moments as the cast reminisce about how much fun they had working together and the joy of this film. Unfortunately, there are some comedic bits involving “zombies” crashing the recording session that immediately falls flat and drags on way too long.
A fun carryover from the MGM Blu-ray is The Decade of Darkness (23 minutes), a featurette saluting the 1980s heyday of horror. The fast moving piece features clips from numerous films intercut with interviews including genre directors John Landis (Innocent Blood), Tom Holland (Fright Night) and Joe Dante (The Howling), author John Kenneth Muir (Horror Films of the 1980s), the iconic Elvira and actor Bill Moseley (Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2). If nothing else, this piece will have you reaching for a lot of classic films to watch on a chilly October night!
There are two photo galleries; one is dedicated to behind the scenes stills of the make-up f/x (25 images), the other provides a look at the marketing materials including posters and lobby cards, as well as assorted production stills taken on set (88 images).
As mentioned above, there are a whopping five theatrical trailers and eleven TV spots (!) encouraging viewers to come party with the dead.
One of the biggest attractions here is the inclusion of the absolutely spectacular documentary More Brains: A Return to the Living Dead (119 minutes). If you missed it before, now is your chance to catch a slightly abbreviated version that focuses entirely on the first film in the series. The initial release also covered the sequels, but viewers will be more than satisfied with this two-hour love letter that offers contemporary interviews with a great number of people who worked on both sides of the camera.
The late great Dan O’Bannon is in rare form appearing in what sadly would be one of his final interviews. He fills the half-hour segment with many great anecdotes and bits of information in his usual irascible manner.
The F/X of Return of the Living Dead (33 minutes) provides an all-new collection of interviews with some of the artists responsible for creating the many highlights of the film. Production designer William Stout, visual f/x supervisor Gene Warren Jr., Tony Gardner, original make-up artist Bill Munns (fired from production) and his replacements Kenny Myers and Craig Caton discuss their work - and all but Munns have nice things to say about their experience.
Similar to the work done on recent titles Shocker and Manhunter, Scream Factory appreciates the power of a good soundtrack and Party Time!: The Music of Return of the Living Dead (30 minutes) offers interviews with many of the musicians that contributed songs to the film, including Dinah Cancer (45 Grave), Greg Hetson (The Circle Jerks), Joe Wood (T.S.O.L), Karl Moet (SSQ), Roky Erickson, Chris D. (The Flesheaters), John Sox (The F.U.’s), Mark Robertson (Tall Boys) and music consultants Bud Carr and Steve Pross. Punk rock devotees will especially get a kick out of seeing all of these talents reflecting on how they became associated with this project.
O’Bannon and Stout discuss the look of the film and the efforts to create a distinct look to the environment in Designing the Dead (14 minutes). This is another detailed glimpse at the work that went into creating this movie and comes highly recommended.
Sean Clark hosts a surprisingly short episode of Horror’s Hallowed Grounds (10 minutes) that is limited by the fact that after thirty years, very few locations remain standing or recognizable. Clark is apologetic but does his best with what little he has to work with. He gets points for trying though.
The Dead Have Risen (21 minutes) returns from the 25th anniversary edition and includes retrospective interviews with several key members of the cast, including Clu Gulagher, James Karen and Don Calfa. This is another fine featurette that if you have somehow missed, is definitely worth watching now.
Writer John Russo traces the history of how this movie came about in Origins of Return of the Living Dead (15 minutes), an interesting conversation that is more telling than expected. Russo has a lot to say about his efforts to make a sequel to Night of the Living Dead, most of which hinge on the strength of the title. Many of the plot specifics he reveals have nothing to do with the final script that was completely rewritten by Dan O’Bannon, so his connection involvement appears tenuous at best.
Longtime collectors will undoubtedly have seen or at least heard of the ultra-rare workprint version (108 minutes) of the film. There are many subtle and not-so-subtle differences in this early cut of the picture that runs seventeen minutes longer than the theatrical release. Sourced from a thirty year old VHS copy, the video is understandably lacking in quality but is not completely unwatchable. If you have never seen this before and are a dead-icated follower then you need to check this out.